Managing the tech vendor relationship

HR can seek out ‘user groups’ for better software customization

It’s a very rare occurrence when the selection and implementation of a human resources management system (HRMS) does not raise some issues between the organization and the vendor. One of the common complaints from organizations is that the implementation process has exposed issues the software either cannot handle or handles poorly. Or perhaps the organization thought the system might behave in a different way based on either the demo or the documentation.

A typical comment at this stage in the process is for the organization to curse the vendor’s salesperson for “lying.”

Do vendors, and specifically salespeople, lie? Yes, and no. Like in any commercial transaction, HR needs to remember the principle of caveat emptor — “Let the buyer beware.”

There are many salespeople out there whose knowledge of the products they are selling is somewhat, if not woefully, lacking. Their misstatements may not arise from dishonesty so much as from a lack of knowledge.

The buyer has to take responsibility for managing the relationship and for determining the accuracy of sales materials.

But obviously there are times when some may intentionally stretch the truth a little. A warranty/disclaimer contract offered to an organization in 2002 stated, “Recipient assumes all risk in, and discloser will not be liable for, any damages arising out of, use of the information including, without limitation, business decisions made or inferences drawn by recipient in reliance on that information or the fact of the disclosure of the information.”

A buyer would be foolhardy to willingly sign that contract without considerable research.

It is also rare for an implementation to come to satisfactory completion without the dreaded word — “customization” — being uttered. Organizations need to understand that vendors have many other customers.

If the requirement for customized functionality is logical (as opposed to being intended to work around existing internal practices that should be changed instead), then it is reasonable to assume that other users might also require the same functionality. Enter the “user group.”

Most software suppliers encourage clients to join together in “user groups.” User groups allow those who use the same system to network and exchange ideas about the software, its foibles and follies, its strengths and opportunities.

Active participation in such organizations, from both technical and functional perspectives, allows organizations to gain from each other’s experiences and to approach the vendor with joint requests for significant modifications or customization. In addition, most vendors look to the user group to set future development priorities.

Traditionally structured along product lines, these groups typically meet at least once a year to trade functional and technical war stories. The degree to which vendors direct or support their user groups varies widely. Some fund all meeting expenses while others offer optional user group attendance as part of maintenance contracts. Some pay some support while expecting users to contribute the bulk of the cost and some vendors have no formal user group program at all.

Elaborate multi-product user conferences can be held in desirable travel locations with keynote speakers and numerous functional and technical sessions on everything from minute detail to the future vision of a particular product line. At the other end of the scale, small groups of users borrow meeting rooms to discuss joint concerns.

Regardless of the degree of financial or administrative support provided to user groups by vendors, they are a very useful tool for vendors and users alike. Users can compare notes on problems, solutions and desirable new functionality. This latter activity can be a major money saver. Instead of each paying for unique customization, user organizations can combine their requirements and focus on convincing the vendor to make the changes or provide the new functionality within the core product at no cost.

Ian Turnbull is managing partner of Laird & Greer Management Consultants, a Toronto-based firm specializing in HR, payroll and time system selection and management. He can be reached at [email protected] or (416) 618-0052. This article is an edited excerpt from the soon to be published third edition of HRMS: A Practical Approach (Rampton, Turnbull, Doran).

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